Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Retaliation Self-efficacy: Lessons in Cool from a Streetfighter

You don't need to act immediately. 

One day when I was young and working as head of public affairs for a big, publicly traded, environmentally conscious retailer, I suddenly felt morally compromised by the company's flagship campaign, which it had me running. I wrote an angry letter to the CEO and board complaining about the campaign, exposing it as disingenuous and unworthy of my or the company's attention.

The company was famous for its campaigns. The press tracked and celebrated it as a pioneer in corporate conscientiousness-and plenty of skeptics were always looking for a chance to knock it off its high horse. Had the letter fallen into the wrong hands, it could have caused the company real trouble.

At first I was proud of the letter. I had spoken truth to power. But when the CEO summoned me to his office, I got anxious.

The problem with such letters is that the recipients get a chance to respond. For people like me who dish it out better than they take it in, the retaliation can hurt.

The CEO had been a street fighter in Glasgow in his youth. He had been my friend as well as my boss, otherwise maybe I wouldn't have written the letter. Anticipating his reaction, I thought maybe the letter would end our friendship. My stomach clenched as I took the elevator to his office.

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He sat me down. I braced myself. He seemed remarkably calm, considering. He brought out some materials from another campaign we were working on. He asked my opinions. We discussed some bland strategic questions. I was relieved. The letter apparently had caused no damage. I was safe. When the meeting ended I said goodbye. As I reached for the door knob he called after me, his voice turned to ice.

"Don't you ever fucking send a letter like that again," was all he said.

These past few weeks I've been writing about choosing your battles, and especially about keeping your cool and prevailing in the ones that count. We are counseled to be generous, to avoid confrontation, to be tolerant and not quick to temper, to turn the other cheek.

That's fine advice, but at least for me it doesn't carry much practical weight. I don't know anyone who doesn't agree with it when reflecting upon it in a calm state. In a confrontation, however, for me and for others, it vaporizes. Advice you can only heed when you don't need it isn't worth much.

And I'm not sure it's a bad thing that it vaporizes. Yes, I'll sign off on the implications of such admonitions as "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." Figuratively that one rings true, but really, if someone deliberately blinded me or (worse) blinded my child, I wouldn't want to heed it, declaring peace because lord knows I wouldn't want to contribute to the world's blindness. Few would-and I think few should.

No, the real question is how to keep the world from going blind given that we quite understandably and justifiably do practice an eye for an eye. A lot of what it takes is patience enough to investigate whether a crime really took place and if so to make the punishment fit it. The whole world isn't blinded by punishment, it's blinded by reckless escalations at the hands of people who can't stop to think.

As I've admitted, I'd like a longer fuse than I've got. Not an infinite fuse-I don't subscribe to infinite patience. If Obama is a role model for me, it's not the aspect where he seems to transcend all battles but the one where he picks his battles really well.

I would like to become slower reacting, more patient, less quick to conclude that fighting is what a situation calls for. I get some mileage out of remembering to be kind and generous, though often when I'm feeling assaulted and humiliated already by someone, cultivating my inner gentleman just fans the flames. It ends up feeling like cultivating my inner chump instead. I just get angrier.

I don't want to pretend the world is safe for surrenderers. If every man, woman, and child could agree to that advice about loving kindness, it might be, but a certain percentage of people will take advantage, so unfortunately we need a mixed strategy. We want to trust the trustworthy and distrust the untrustworthy. We want the wisdom to know the difference. In a moment of sudden distrust, when you think someone may have wronged you, what you want is time enough to investigate. How do you get it?

I think the key is retaliation self-efficacy. You'll remember that self-efficacy is confidence that you have a particular power or skill or ability, born largely of your success at doing similar things before.

Retaliation self-efficacy means knowing you have the ability to get back at someone should you need to. If you have doubts, about your ability to fight back, you'll feel more urgency to test that ability. You won't feel safe until you've had vengeance. But if you know you're fully capable of avenging yourself if you need to, you don't need to act immediately. Paradoxically, the more confident I am that I could retaliate effectively, the less I'll need to retaliate immediately, and therefore the more likely I am to feel I can afford the time to investigate and find out whether I've been attacked.

I learned this lesson from watching my Scottish CEO. He didn't attack me when I entered his office. Had he done so he would have demonstrated his power, but not nearly as well as he did by waiting until the end of the meeting.

He didn't investigate with me in the room. Asking someone you don't trust whether you can trust them yields inconclusive evidence anyway. He told me later he has a policy of investigating and deciding whether to trust someone either before or after an encounter but not during it. My letter was all the evidence he needed. I had put the company at risk and I would pay.

But not immediately. He could bide his time. He wasn't anxious to prove his power over me because he didn't need to prove it to himself.

Some of us are just naturally gentle souls who reach for that advice about niceness to justify our temperamental predisposition toward accommodation. Some of us act gentle but have our means of fighting, and we reach for that advice about niceness as a way to get others to accommodate. For those of us who aren't so gentle by temperament, trying to become gentle may be a lost cause, at least without heavy doses of docility drugs we wouldn't be willing to take.

If, like me, you're a tad too hot-headed, you'll find you can take the necessary time to cool down and investigate if you lean into your temperament rather than away from it. Knowing you can do the retaliatory thing, you don't need to rush in. You may be able to buy yourself time enough in a neutral state to make sure you only fight back when it's called for. Maybe it was my sense of powerlessness that made me rush to write that letter to the CEO in the first place-a letter, as irony would have it, about which battles the company should pick.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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